The Hyperinflation Of "Elite" Quarterbacks

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When almost a quarter of the starting QBs in the league have a Super Bowl ring to their name, using those same rings as a way to define elite quarterbacks quickly loses its value.

Many of the analysts and color commentators we watch, listen to and read on a regular basis had their formative years in terms of their football education in the 1970s and sometimes even earlier. As anecdotal evidence to support that hypothesis, here's an overview of the panelists on three Sunday pre-game shows, including their age and year of birth:

Sunday Pre-game Show Panelists
ESPN Sunday NFL Countdown FOX NFL Sunday CBS NFL Today
Panelist Born Age Panelist Born Age Panelist Born Age
Chris Berman 1955 58 Curt Menefee 1965 47 James Brown 1951 62
Tom Jackson 1951 62 Terry Bradshaw 1948 64 Dan Marino 1961 51
Mike Ditka 1939 73 Howie Long 1960 53 Shannon Sharpe 1968 45
Keyshawn Johnson 1972 41 Jimmy Johnson 1943 70 Boomer Esiason 1961 52
Cris Carter 1965 47 Michael Strahan 1971 41 Bill Cowher 1957 56

This is by no means representative of all the analysts and commentators out there, but it does underline that a lot of the people who present football to us coached, played, or learned about football in the 1970s. And while there's nothing principally wrong with that, the way the game of football is played in 2013 is significantly different from the way it was played in the 1970s. Yet football commentary is filled with precepts and ideas that may have been relevant in the 70s, but have become largely irrelevant in today's game. Here are just three random examples of that:

  • "Running leads to winning": How often have you heard someone say or write that a given team will always win if its star running back just gets 20 or more carries? That may have been the blueprint to winning in the 1970s, but with the dominance of the passing game, very few teams win by running the ball today. Instead, the high correlation you see between winning and running the ball is owed almost exclusively to the fact that teams playing with a lead tend to run the ball more.
  • "The Steelers are a smashmouth team". In the early and late 70s, when the NFL rose to prominence in the American sports landscape, many teams established a brand equity or brand identity that has stuck with them to this day. The Cowboys will remain America's Team in perpetuity, even though they haven't had much success over the last 17 seasons. The Steelers, one of the teams most closely associated with the smash-mouth brand of football in the 70s, are still frequently called a smash-mouth team. But they are now, and have been for quite some time, a passing team. Ben Roethlisberger’s career passing yards per attempt is tied for No. 6 on the all time NFL leaders list with Kurt Warner and Tony Romo.
  • "Stopping the run is key to winning": Brian Burke of Advance NFL Stats has a nice quote that illustrates the importance of stopping the run in the modern NFL:
    "Got a LB that's a great run stopper but can't play coverage? Trade him to some sucker team that cares that they only give up 3.8 yards per carry rather than 4.2 yards per carry. That's how you build a perennial playoff contender."

There are many more of these precepts that have carried over from a couple of decades ago into today's game, but the one I'd like to focus on today, as the title of this post implies, is the idea of the elite quarterback.

The first AFL-NFL World Championship Game was played after the 1966 season, on January 15, 1967. In this game, which later became known as Super Bowl I, the Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs. The Packers were led by Bart Starr, who would once again lead the Packers to the title in the next Super Bowl.

The following Super Bowls were won by a string of football legends. In succession, Joe Namath (68), Len Dawson (69), Johnny Unitas (70), Roger Staubach (71), Bob Griese (72 & 73), and Terry Bradshaw (74 & 75) quarterbacked the winning teams. And every single one of these QBs is in the Hall of Fame today. That Hall of Fame run came to an end in 1976 when Oakland won the Super Bowl, but Oakland's QB Ken Stabler never made the Hall of Fame.

Somewhere during that initial period, the idea of the elite QB must have been born, and with it the idea that an elite QB had to have won a Super Bowl ring. By its very definition, "elite" status can only be afforded to a "select few", and throughout the 70s and 80s, only a select few QBs in the league were actual Super Bowl winners:

Between 1970 and 1991, there were never more than four or five active QBs in the league with a Super Bowl ring on their hand.

  • The number of SB-winning QBs rose to five in 1971 when Roger Staubach won his first Super Bowl ring. It stayed at five through 1977.
  • In 1978 it dropped back to four when Joe Namath retired after the 1977 season.
  • After Joe Theisman's Redskins won the 1982 Super Bowl, the number rose to five again, but dropped back down to four in 1984 after Ken Stabler retired.
  • It took another Redskins win in 1991 Super Bowl, this time with Mark Rypien under center, to move the number of active Super Bowl winning QBs to five.

In the 22 years between 1970 and 1991, ten years saw five active Super Bowl-winning QBs in the league, 12 years had only four Super Bowl-winning QBs active in the league at the same time. This relative scarcity of Super Bowl-winning QBs further solidified the idea that winning a Super Bowl (more specifically: playing QB on a team that won the Super Bowl) allowed a QB to join the ranks of the "select few" or "elite".

  • In 1992, the number jumped to six when Troy Aikman won his first Super Bowl with the Cowboys and joined the elite club. The number stayed at six until 1995, when it dropped back to five with the retirement of Joe Montana.
  • In 1996, Brett Favre joined the ranks of the elite and the number climbed back up to six QBs.
  • After the 1996 season, Jim MacMahon retired, but John Elway finally, finally got his ring to keep the number stable at six.
  • But when Mark Rypien and Jeff Hostetler both retired after the 1997 season, the number dropped back to four QBs, where it remained through the 2000 season.

So with the exception of four years in the mid-90's when there were six, there were never more than four or five Super Bowl-winning QBs in the league at the same time. But that changed in the new millennium. Here's how that number has increased over the last 13 seasons.

Elite_qbs_in_the_nfl_medium

Over the last few years, the league has averaged seven active Super Bowl-winning QBs, with a peak of eight in 2007 and a minor blip in 2011 after Brett Favre retired, but that slack was quickly picked up by Joe Flacco.

Entering 2013, seven QBs (Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco) will have Super Bowl rings to their names, and there's a good chance that number could climb back to eight with the likes of Matt Ryan, Matt Schaub, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and perhaps even Tony Romo in the mix for the Lombardi this year.

And when you have a quarter of the starting NFL QBs sporting a Super Bowl ring, it gets hard to talk of a "select few". Using Super Bowl rings as a way to define elite QBs may have worked in the 70s and 80s, but today, where every Joe, Ben and Eli can win a ring or two, perhaps it's time to come up with a new way to define "elite".

Of course, Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson would probably disagree, but so be it.

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